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In praise of learned Lords
Wednesday 25 April 2012 by Eduardo Reyes
It seems likely that any move to make the House of Lords a predominantly directly elected chamber would reduce the number of lawyers who sit on its red benches. It has been a generation since the Commons, whose traditional hours reflected the need of many MPs to practise law in the morning, included eminent lawyers in any number.
There are a large number of well-respected lawyers in the House of Lords, and their membership of the upper house no doubt contributes to its reputation for seriousness. The recent Lords debates on the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders bill (LASPO) have added to that impression - with non-lawyer justice minister Lord McNally seemingly struggling to answer the criticisms put by sharp legal minds.
Legal expertise in the upper house would most likely be a casualty of reform. Is that a reason to feel queasy about reform of the Lords, to delay or abandon it?
In short, certainly not.
But reformers need to acknowledge the value this expertise has represented to date - there should be a plan for how members of the house on all sides access legal insights, advice and experience that, to date, its own members have provided ‘gratis’ (their own parliamentary expenses aside).
Does it stretch credibility to think a non-lawyer parliamentarian can scrutinise or argue with the executive when supported with a decent briefing from a lawyer?
If you want to know how well that can work out, one good recent example was former Play Away presenter, now Lib Dem peer Floella Benjamin, supporting amendments to LASPO’s third reading in the Lords.
And if lawyers who currently make such a strong contribution in the Lords feel, for some reason, unable to stand for election but retain a commitment to public service, they may also like to think by what arrangement they can support, advise and influence successful non-lawyer candidates in the future.
Eduardo Reyes is Gazette features editor
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